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Cakes and ale, round two

B. had dinner at the River Styx, which flows through Brooklyn.  “Only the dead...”  I merely plunged into the underworld and emerged on Grand Street in a deluge.  The sidewalks were smears of scarlet, green, and yellow light.  Shops spilled fish and fruit and gaudy toys, so that the sea urchins, redrowning in their open crates, seemed like trinkets of another landmark:  the Statue of Liberty, the Urchin of Independence...I met my friends Daniel Rabuzzi and Deborah Mills at Sticky Rice; and (having battled from the furthest uptown) Leah Zander arrived with the appetizers, in a stunning scarlet cloche.  Eat your heart out, Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Fabulous conversation; fabulous food.  We all had the duck spring rolls and the mango flower dumplings; several of us sinned further, and tried the home-cured bacon satay.  Others had the signature drunken noodles or pad thai; I had the masaman duck.  And the talk was terrific.  Deborah is carving a sea-bed for a patron, with posts and panels of monsters, mermaids, finny cherubs.  Leah is studying historical fiction at Columbia with Simon Schama.  All of you should read Daniel’s amazing books:  which are histories of an earth and sea and sky that never were.

The rain had ended when I journeyed home.  Did you know the Museum of Natural History subway now has mosaics of owls and oceanbeds and galaxies and whales?  I didn’t.  And upstairs the skyline shone through trees, as if this were a planet with a score of rising moons.

For some reason, I was as tired as if I’d had a transatlantic flight debouching on a worldcon.  I fell over.

And woke with a mission:  there were at that moment nine Vermeers on public view in the city.  I would see them all.

Well, I’d just seen four of them:  but I would do five and four.

Being shy of disturbing other absent people’s housekeeping, I had tea and a slice of bread and butter, and a gaze at their admirable view.  Then (elevator man!  doorman!) I set out.  Just across the Park, I thought.

I got lost.  Like a fool, I forgot that I had a compass app, and had only to head it east.  (The sun was obscured, and the Google dot blotted out the tangle of pathways.)  I kept finding myself back at the west gate, as if I were on a quest in a story, and kept asking plaintively of—well, not mysterious crones, but dog walkers.  (Runners don’t stop; stalking birders resent disturbances.)  I particularly liked the walker with three Miss Lark’s Andrews.  (“Come on, boys, you can’t all be carried.”)  No matter.  It’s a beautiful park in winter, and I did eventually emerge at the east gate, with only about fifteen minutes lost.

Another happy circumstance:  the Met waved me in on my MFA membership.

Even on a mission, one gets sidelined, by choice or by chance.  I had to pay my respects to Gainsborough’s portrait of my mother as Mrs. Grace Dalrymple.  (Yes, she really did look like that, in her statelier moods.)  How sorely I wished I could have told her my adventures.  She was always an insatiable traveller; and New York, her first beloved city.

There was rediscovery.  I’d forgotten the disillusioned Medea and the blithe swimming maidens.  "Come on in, girls, the water's fine!”

There was pilgrimage.  Bruegel’s Harvesters is one of the great Cloudish paintings (with its sibling Hunters in the Snow).

And at last there was the little jewel box full of Vermeers, guarded by a cheerful young man with round glasses and a beard:  “Can’t beat the scenery.”

They have the lustrous tronie of the Girl’s little sister:  franker, mischievous and melancholy, harsh and serene.  A grey freshwater pearl?  Baroque at any rate, with those odd little asymmetric features and that shining great forehead.

They have the Maid Asleep and dreaming; and that unsettling Allegory of the Catholic Faith, redeemed in my eyes by the swag of camera obscura tapestry and the wondrous glass globe.

They have the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, herself a vessel of the light; and the Woman with a Lute, who meets the light’s gaze as an equal.  She is one of the Nine in my mythology:  she sets the sky in tune.  It is eternally about to be Now.

Holding all of these, their canons and inversions, in mindfulness, I walked down Fifth to the Frick.

And again I blessed that membership:  if anything, the line was longer and more urgent than it was on Saturday, the guards with their flaming swords more rhadamanthine.  I just sailed past.  Inside, it was thronged to a standstill.  (The queue for the ladies’ room was something Homeric.)  But with the Met bits of the heavens in my head, I revisited their three fixed-star Vermeers and the planetary girl, their evening star.  And their gazes had changed.  They looked, one to another, cross-museum; they took hands.  Five and four made a constellation of Nine.



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 14th, 2014 11:23 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a lovely trip. I need to get down to NYC sometime when I have time to see more of the city than Chelsea Market, the office, and my hotel.
Jan. 14th, 2014 11:39 pm (UTC)
Truly you do!

Jan. 14th, 2014 11:34 pm (UTC)
Studying historical fiction with Simon Schama--I am clutching my faux-pearls in an orgy of jealousy.

And oh, the Frick! Though I kept being distracted by the house, imagining the family in it, and Edith Wharton and co taking tea and gossiping about Astor vs. Vanderbilt.
Jan. 14th, 2014 11:45 pm (UTC)
I am clutching my faux-pearls in an orgy of jealousy.

I hear you. But LZ is a fabulous student: handpicked and highly deserving. I must say I'm dying to hear their notes!

Gads yes, the Frick. It's usually much quieter, almost quiet enough to imagine Wharton upstairs. I remember a visit when a tassel on a roped-off chair kept rising in the updraught of a register, rising and falling like a captured angel. A baffled serenity. I was fascinated.

Jan. 14th, 2014 11:55 pm (UTC)
Remember the time a guard reprimanded me for lecturing? We were just talking!
Jan. 15th, 2014 12:05 am (UTC)
I do! If he still works there (and these guards are dry immortals), they'd have had to tie him up and drag him off. The onslaught of the vulgar would have driven him stark mad.

Jan. 15th, 2014 06:35 pm (UTC)
The day I was there (a Wednesday in November), I kept thinking that I was mostly surrounded by the Ladies Who Lunch, clothed in Ann Taylor or Talbots. There were men there too, of course, mostly post-retirement age (as is perhaps required for being in a museum mid-day during the week), plus some touristing Europeans of various ages. I can't see myself, so I possibly looked out of place as well, but I particularly noticed a couple of about my age in sturdy boots and flannel shirts. By definition, everyone there had at least enough money to pay to get in, and probably to pay to travel to NYC, but I was struck by the large majority of people who looked to be Really Well Off. I don't feel that so much in other museums, including the Met.
Jan. 15th, 2014 08:14 pm (UTC)
No impassioned Japanese? There were crowds of them on Saturday and Sunday. One, refusing to be jostled, stood reverently with his sketchpad and drew the Girl. (An homage I honor.) And the weekend elderly seemed a bit downmarket, by their accents and their conversation.

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )